Throughout the massive beef recall, the largest in Canadian history, XL Foods has had no face and therefore no soul. There has been no company official to face the media and answer questions, no one for the general public to identify with.
It’s in sharp contrast to the strategy employed by Michael McCain during Maple Leaf’s listeriosis outbreak a few years ago. It’s surprising that the Nilsson Brothers, the owners of XL didn’t employ a similar strategy when it worked so well for Maple Leaf.
To its credit, XL Foods did issue an extensive news release on October 4 taking full responsibility for the E coli problem and listing all the process improvements being made to make sure it never happens again.
The news release struck the correct contrite tone promising to work with the CFIA and claiming “the safety and wellbeing of our consumers is our number one priority.” But somehow it’s always more reassuring to hear and see someone saying the words. And being available to answer media questions is a big part of public accountability.
Sure the media will ask a lot of stupid questions, but these are the same sort of questions people in the general public would ask. If XL is truly taking responsibility, it shouldn’t leave the CFIA and the federal agriculture minister to carry the ball. Face the microphones and cameras and calmly explain what went wrong and what you’re doing to fix it.
If your strategy is to avoid the media, it adds fuel to the claims that you have something to hide.
Most people, beef producers included, are far removed from the safety protocols inside a major meat packing plant. It’s time to open the veil of secrecy that seems to cover parts of the food chain.
Primary producers through their associations spend a considerable amount of time and effort to educate and inform consumers on how animals are raised. The open door policy ends once animals reach the processing plant.
The CFIA inspection process is largely a mystery as well. How do our food safety protocols compare to other industrialized nations? Do we have more food recalls than the U.S.? More or less food-related illness?
Is food safety being compromised due to the size and scale of processing facilities like the XL plant at Brooks? If you asked consumers this question, a large majority would probably say yes. However, it may be that the large plants are as safe as or even safer than a local abattoir.
On the other hand, when a large plant has a food safety issue, many more consumers are at risk and there can be ramifications for all primary producers. If such concentration in food processing is undesirable, how do we turn back the clock?
Fortunately for XL, the number of people who actually became ill appears to be relatively small. In fact, the link between the XL E coli and reported illnesses doesn’t even seem conclusive in many cases.
Consumers want ironclad assurance that their food is absolutely safe. On the other hand, some consumers lobby for the ability to buy unpasteurized milk. We fret about food safety at home, but belly-up to the buffet line at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and Cuba and other warm destinations.
Consumers have a range of opinions and attitudes, but people relate to other people. XL Foods is a corporate entity. Corporations don’t have feelings. XL needed a human face, preferably an owner’s face, speaking to consumers.